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It has been Silicon Valley’s leadership template for decades — talented young engineers create something that resonates, scale it up, and find themselves as chief executive at the helm of a ship that is larger than they could possibly have imagined.
Now, after an era of moving fast and breaking things, a generation of developer-CEOs is facing a collective call to step aside. Whether it is policymakers calling for platforms to fix a broken society or shareholders disgruntled at losses wrought by the tech-lash, the suggestion is growing that tech companies don’t need technologist leaders, they need leaders who can manage global corporations.
In a sense, this is right. Two thirds of tech CEOs have STEM degrees, according to a survey. Those who successfully scale a company end up needing to acquire a skill set that goes far beyond commits and pull requests. Where, once, product was the only concern, fiduciary duties, policy considerations, and user harms become the new imperatives.
But the idea that engineers-turned-CEOs are no longer fit for purpose is perverse; a mistake framed in a cognitive bias. On the contrary, I think they remain the perfect candidates.
1. Technology’s transformation requires technology
Yes, the key problems with technology platforms in 2019 point to a need for transformation. But, when you look at each, the best chance at realizing that transformation is through technology itself. Whether it is harmful content or excess personal data collection, all the solutions at scale require renewed product innovation — in AI auto-detection, enhanced control mechanisms, or whatever. By all means, let the grown-ups identify the problems, but it would be folly to throw out the leaders with the best ideas for course-correcting.
2. Sales leaders’ leadership can be overrated
The belief that a CEO from the sales or general business function is now the best-placed candidate looks like pseudocertainty effect. When it replaced Bill Gates with Steve Ballmer, Microsoft spent years in product wilderness while Ballmer, a business school drop-out, tried and failed to turn it around with the sheer force of his hard-sell approach. When what it needed was product renewal, Yahoo’s board appointed a succession of generalist business heads to oversee a run-down of the once mighty group. Let’s not kid ourselves that throwing the baby out with the bathwater is always the right course.
3. Change makers need a figurehead
Any CEO who wants to change a tech platform’s fabric is going to need their developers on board to execute. But when a tech company’s leadership pivots away from product pedigree, its team often gets restless. Those at companies like Pichai’s Google or Nadella’s Microsoft want to create and innovate for someone who galvanizes them on a product-led mission. When Steve Jobs left Apple and the CEOs of the PC makers acquired by HP left their companies, this center of gravity went haywire, limiting those companies’ ability to realize the change they needed. To transform a tech company, you need leadership in whom engineers can see themselves.
4. Solutions at scale require systems thinking
Many technology vendors have now reached sufficient scale in their understanding that it is not the need for change that is in question but how best to implement that change. CEOs with an engineering background treat the business as another system, one for which solutions must be delivered in a repeatable, scalable manner, rather than just through tinkering and ad hoc interventions. This may not lead to an immediate solution for, say, combating hate speech, but it will lead to a better one.
5. Developers have the right moral compass
Anyone who understands developer culture knows it is rooted in a firm sense of fairness, meritocracy, and lust for social change. In every organization I have run, the sales executives are concerned with money first, but it is often the engineers who are the most socially aware, the ones asking questions like: “Should we really be doing this?” That corporate conscience bubbles up through the ranks and, for navigating tech’s social responsibility in 2019, is a top talent to have.
That’s not to say engineers are immune to moral failure. The fall of Uber’s founder and CEO Travis Kalanick was spectacular in that the promising startup’s biggest problem was its CEO.
But Kalanick’s behavior isn’t endemic to engineers and technologists. Socially responsible startups quietly make the world a better place — the bad apples get many more headlines. Of course, credit for wise leadership doesn’t always belong with the CEO. Many, and Kalanick may have benefited from this approach, rely on partner COOs that see the world through a different lens and provide a critical counterbalance.
6. The sidekick model works
An executive team should combine a blend of specialisms. There are unsung COOs brought in to run things on the inside for the outside-facing or product-driven CEO. Bill Gates had a great relationship with COO Jon Shirley (1983-1990), who is credited with growing Microsoft’s financial infrastructure.
Often, this “product-driven” CEO + business driven COO model produces a culture led by an engineer’s egalitarianism without losing sight of what makes people tick. This hierarchy keeps the company’s North Star in the right place without sacrificing the human component that drives company success.
Few would dispute that Eric Schmidt’s providing “adult supervision” to Larry Page and Sergei Brin allowed Google to flourish as both a technology company and an advertising business. The sidekick model works, and there seems little reason to rip it apart.
That said, there really is no singular model for a COO. Company COOs come from various backgrounds and take on different responsibilities depending on the business.
It has been a long time since I earned my engineering degree from Oxford University, but every day I have valued how it has augmented my abilities as a CEO of multiple technology businesses.
Startup boards should be mindful not to simply accept the growing external dogma that it is time for a new kind of technology leader. Instead, they should question if such a leader is right for their own company.
When pressure mounts, boards’ recruitment committees often tend toward conservatism. But conservatism isn’t compatible with the creative disruption that technology businesses must continue to bring about.
In the technology industry, I frequently see three types of companies facing CEO challenges:
- Once-great technology companies in leadership crisis, losing their product prowess and turning out lower profits because they’ve lost their creative focus.
- Massively successful technology companies that struggle with social responsibility and justice.
- Brilliant new startups ready to disrupt archaic industries but presenting challenges to our moral compass.
In all three cases, I want to lobby for a technologist-visionary for CEO.
As tech enters a new era of responsibility and challenge, it certainly needs adults in the room. But it is the innovative mindset that engineer-leaders bring that can transform tech companies in the way society needs.
Barry Morris is CEO of Undo. He previously founded NuoDB in 2008 and most recently served as its Executive Chairman. He has over 25 years’ experience working in enterprise software and database systems and is a prodigious company builder, scaling startups and publicly held companies alike.
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